Best Retirement Havens in the World

Researchers at International Living have scored their Annual Retirement Index and have generated a list of the best places in the world to retire. Ecuador tops the list …

Researchers at International Living have scored their Annual Retirement Index and have generated a list of the best places in the world to retire. Ecuador tops the list this year with exceptionally low living costs, great health care, good public transportation in city areas and a mild year-round climate. The rest of the top five on the list include Mexico, Panama, Spain and New Zealand. The experts on expatriate living rate the index based on several factors including infrastructure, safety and stability, culture, climate, costs of living and many other variables, which provides a very comprehensive look at retirement havens. For more on this continue reading the following article from International Living.

Flowers bloom everywhere, and not one but four rushing rivers bubble over rocks to feed the lush vegetation. In Ecuador—the country that tops this year’s Global Retirement Index—nature is ever-present. And you can enjoy it fully in the city of Cuenca, where those rivers trail amid mountain surrounds.

The colonial churches, grand mansions, shady parks, and fountain-anchored plazas have earned Cuenca world-wide recognition for its beauty. A mild climate makes for comfortable living year-round. Average daily temperatures reach into the 70s F, and the nights are cool and fresh. And Ecuador is one of the most affordable countries in the world. You can rent a furnished, two-bed apartment in an historic center for $220, or buy a large condo for $66,000. You can live well for $600 a month…and like royalty for double that.

To rank our winners this year, we analyzed 37 critical data points for each of our top 23 retirement havens and, for the third year running, Ecuador won. For retirees, colonial Cuenca is Ecuador’s most attractive city. The third largest in the country, it offers the relaxed pace of a smaller town with the first-class amenities and health care of a bigger one. But Cuenca is by no means your only option in Ecuador. This is a country with something for everyone—beaches, rural highlands, jungle escapes, and colonial cities.

“No matter where you choose to live in Ecuador, there is no better place on earth to discover the simple abundance of health, tranquillity, adventure, and beauty,” says expat Patricia Farmer. “We chose Bahía de Caraquez on the coast to begin our Ecuador adventure. There are plenty of amenities, including a hospital, restaurants, and frequent expat get-togethers.”

Patricia, her husband Ron, and their two nervous cats arrived at their new beachfront home in February of this year. “We knew no one. And yet we immediately felt at home,” says Patricia. “Living in Southern California, we were spoiled by the warm climate and beautiful beaches. Retirement would—or should—have given us time to enjoy all that more fully. And yet we had no realistic chance of retiring anywhere near a beach in California. “Looking back now, we’re glad we needed to look elsewhere to fulfil our retirement dreams. Otherwise, the chance of living in one of the most beautiful and exotic retirement havens in the world might have passed us by.”

For Douglas Willis and his wife Lisa, Cuenca became the haven of choice. “We love the fact that Cuenca has preserved its Old-World feel. It has excellent medical facilities, too, and we can find just about anything we need here in the way of shopping,” says Douglas.

Douglas and Lisa have been in Cuenca for four years (read their full story here) and say that the city’s extensive public transportation system makes it easy to live there without a car. Plus, “we’ve been extremely pleased with the quality of the health care offered in Cuenca. In our experience, it is superior in almost every way to the U.S. Doctors here are more accessible and hands-on than doctors in the U.S. They seem to really care about their patients and are very well-trained and qualified. There are a number of new medical facilities in Cuenca that rival anything available in the U.S.,” says Douglas.

But there’s more to Ecuador than affordable beach life and vibrant highland cities. After weighing their options, Jack Moss and his wife Debbie opted for small-town Cotacachi. “We were looking to retire outside of the U.S. after hectic careers. It seemed that Mexico, Costa Rica, and Panama had already had their run. Research pointed us to Ecuador. We read about Cuenca but didn’t want the larger city. And we didn’t want the heat of the beach. We visited the mountain-valley village of Cotacachi three times. On the last visit, we stayed for a month and decided that the tranquillity, the weather, the small expat community, and the low cost of living were what we were looking for.”

Since Ecuador’s official currency is the U.S. dollar, you have no problems determining the cost of goods or services. “Although imported goods are more expensive, local products and labor are quite reasonable,” says Jack. “Our water and sewer bill is about $3 a month, our electric bill is $45 and property tax is $52 a year. Cotacachi’s Sunday market offers a large variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, cheeses, eggs, flowers, etc … all at low prices compared to the U.S.” (For Jack and Debbie’s Cotacachi budget, go here.)

Patricia says that, on the coast in Bahía, the living costs for her and Ron average out to a fifth of what they spent in California. “We live in a nice highrise condo overlooking the ocean. Even with two spoiled cats in need of gourmet food and our love of fine dark chocolate, good Chilean wines, and eating out with friends, we enjoy a very comfortable lifestyle—even more luxurious than we had in California. You can live on less, no doubt, but including everything except rent ($500 a month), we are currently spending about $1,500 a month.” (For a full breakdown of Patricia and Ron’s beachside budget, go here.)

This value represents Ecuador’s number-one retiree benefit. Costs are just plain low. In Cotacachi, “many expats say that they have trouble spending over $1,200 a month for all expenses per couple,” says Jack. And in Cuenca, Douglas says he, his wife, and their children live on about $1,000 a month. “That’s a quarter of the budget we lived on in the U.S.” (For a full breakdown of their colonial-city budget and their story, go here.)

And health care in Ecuador is cheap, too. An appointment with a doctor averages $25 (without insurance). “I’ve visited an English-speaking doctor here in Bahía and was very pleased,” says Patricia.For insurance we chose Cruz Blanca, the least expensive with the most coverage.  The first two years begin gradual coverage. After two years, we will have 100% coverage of everything from a doctor’s visit to a heart transplant–with a $2 co-pay. No deductible.  If we need to use the hospital here in Bahía, we can be reimbursed by Cruz Blanca. We pay $40 each per month (no exam needed under age 65); this jumps to $95 each at age 65 and remains there for life.”

More Benefits of Retiring to Ecuador

Unlike Panama’s pensionado program, which is aimed at foreign residents, Ecuador’s senior-citizen discount program is intended to help its own citizens. But the country’s constitution guarantees foreign residents the same rights as citizens—so as a retiree, you’ll enjoy the same benefits.

These include 50% off public and private transportation within the country (including the Galápagos); 50% off tickets for all cultural and sporting events, including movies; 50% off electric and water bills (below certain usage levels); and free domestic landline phone service (does not include long distance and other services). You’ll also get 50% off international airfares on Taca, Copa, or AeroGal for round-trip flights originating in Ecuador.

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Best of all, you never have to stand in line. If you’re a senior citizen, when you make a bank deposit or pay your utility bill, it’s the law that you go directly to the front of the line. When you’re over 65, you pay lower income tax. And you get any money spent on VAT (value-added tax) refunded each month—up to about $250.

The Ecuadorian government also guarantees senior citizens access to free health care and medication and exemption from notary and registration fees. “All expats are able to participate in the Ecuador Social Security medical program,” explains Jack Moss who, with his wife Debbie, retired to Cotacachi two years ago. “There are no exams necessary for those under age 60. Over 60 there are a series of medical tests, but a pre-existing condition is not a reason to be denied coverage. The premium is about $57 a month, and there is no co-pay or deductible for physician visits, hospitalization, medications, or dental visits.”

But for contributing editor Suzan Haskins, hands down, the number-one benefit of living in the Ecuadorian Andes is the lack of mosquitoes. “Give me the all-time perfect climate and bug-free mountains any day,” she says.

2011 Global Retirement Index Winners

2nd Place – Mexico

White sand beaches and turquoise-blue seas, with hammocks swaying nearby…centuries-old Spanish-colonial cities with winding, cobblestone streets and fountain-filled plazas…towering ruins left by ancient civilizations… guitars being strummed on warm, moonlit evenings…. Mexico is rich in romance, as the one million-plus U.S. and Canadian expats who live there will tell you.

But expats don’t live by romance alone. Fortunately, Mexico also provides solid, modern-day comforts and conveniences. That secluded, away-from-it-all beach on the deserted, packed-sand road? You can get within a few miles of it on a modern highway—one of the many that criss-crosses Mexico. Those centuries-old cities with their colonial homes? Today their walls conceal telephone and high-speed Internet cables and their roofs sport satellite dishes and solar water heaters.

Likewise, health care is very much 21st century, with first-rate hospitals, clinics, and medical staff. (Don’t speak Spanish? Many doctors, especially in private clinics, speak English.) And the bill will likely run you half or less of what you’d pay at home.

In fact, life in Mexico can cost you up to 40% less than what you’d pay in the U.S. for a similar lifestyle. It’s also lived at a slower, more gracious pace. And that is what, finally, many expats seek. As expat Jill Jackson, who lives in Loreto, Baja California Sur, explains: “It lets me be the person I have always wanted to be.”

3rd Place – Panama

Panama is a heavy hitter in our annual Global Retirement Index, and it’s easy to see why. For one thing, Panama always takes the top spot in the retirement-benefits category due to its pensionado, or pensioner’s, program. Conceived to secure discounts for Panama’s senior citizens—savings on everything from surgery to movie tickets—the program is open to foreigners and even grants them residency.

Eighty-two-year-old Al Fine moved from Florida to Panama City around six years ago. He says he enjoys the discounts more than anything, but he also likes how modern Panama is. His ocean-view condo is in what he calls “the Beverly Hills of Panama,” where for $300,000 or less you can have the kind of property that would cost $1 million or more in Miami. But elsewhere in ultra-modern Panama City, you can buy a two-bedroom apartment for as little as $85,000.

Al is five minutes from Latin America’s most advanced hospital, the region’s only Johns Hopkins affiliate. He is five minutes from several five-star hotels, where he enjoys Sunday brunches. The area of downtown Panama City where he lives is home to the famed financial district and to an upscale restaurant district that is First World all the way.

Most of all, though, Al appreciates the people here…he likes that Panamanians are friendly and family-oriented, respectful of elders, and always happy to lend a helping hand. Thanks to the Panama Canal, this has long been a cosmopolitan, international destination. Yet for all its modernity, it’s still affordable. You can live comfortably right in Panama City for as little as $1,500 a month, including rent (or mortgage).

Plus, beyond the city you have easy access – for both visits and living – to cool-weather highland communities like Boquete or to Pacific-beach retreats like Coronado. Panama provides excellent overall value. It’s not the cheapest place on our Index, but if you’re looking for convenient, 21st-entury living, you’ll find it here at a bargain.

4th Place – Spain

From Andalusia’s sleepy white villages to Gaudí’s Barcelona, Spain is an ever-popular retirement destination for Europeans. Some come for the golf and Mediterranean beaches with their 320+ days of sunshine. For others, it’s fiestas, flamenco, and dreamy Moorish architecture.

The cost of living is another attraction. Even for those on fixed pensions, eating out doesn’t have to be an occasional treat. Not when you can get a three-course meal with a bottle of wine for $14. Most retirees flock to southern Spain’s beach towns. The Costa Blanca and Costa del Sol have large expat communities—and English-speaking services that cater to them.  English isn’t widely spoken in all of Spain’s 17 regions—but you can manage with only a smattering of Spanish in many resort towns along “the Costas.”

And these towns are a great jumping-off point for exploring the rest of the country, one of Europe’s largest and most diverse: Madrid, with its world-class museums; the vast interior, with its endless plains, sun-baked villages, and spirit of Don Quijote; and northern Spain, with its rolling green mountains and rocky coast.

Spanish health care is good, but North American retirees will need private insurance. Annual premiums with a Spanish provider are likely to be around $1,500 for 55-60 year olds, depending on your age and medical history. The property market bubble burst around five years ago, and prices along the coasts are now down at very tempting levels. In Costa Blanca seaside towns such as Torrevieja, you can pick up a two-bedroom garden apartment for under $100,000.

Many expatriates initially rent. Again, there are lots of deals around.  For example, a one-bedroom apartment in a complex with a pool in Benalmadena on the Costa del Sol is $625 monthly. But on the Costa Almería, even townhouses are advertised for around $400 monthly. For more on Spain, including information on residency visas, see here.

5th PlaceNew Zealand

Wine festivals, whale-watching, and concerts in the park…mile after mile of coastal walks…geysers, glaciers, and the Southern Alps. For those who love uncrowded places and a temperate climate, New Zealand is one of the world’s most livable countries. Home to around 4.4 million people, it’s one of its safest, too.

Divided into the North Island and South island, it’s known as Aotearoa (“the Land of the Long White Cloud”) to its Maori inhabitants. But there’s no need to learn a new language. Generations of immigrants from the English-speaking world have long been drawn to a lifestyle that puts as much emphasis on play as on work.

Kiwis see nothing odd about festooning Christmas trees in tinsel when it’s rapidly approaching their Midsummer’s Day. While the northern hemisphere is wrapped in winter, they’re enjoying long evenings at the beach or fishing from sailboats. Most towns are near the coast—you’re never far from the sound of the ocean.

Salaries can be low compared to North America, but so are most living costs, including health care. For residents, accident and emergency care is free. It’s estimated that 70% of Kiwis don’t even bother with medical insurance. Although New Zealand’s immigration department doesn’t offer a permanent retirement visa, you could spend part of the year here. If you have substantial funds, another option is a renewable temporary retirement visa. And some people in their 50s obtain permanent residence as skilled workers, with a view to working for a short time and then retiring.

Our Annual Retirement Index: How It’s Scored

Real Estate. Countries where real estate prices are low and the purchase of real estate is relatively easy receive the highest scores. We use our own experiences, plus reports from our contributing editors and from real estate contacts around the world, to rate each country. Weight in Index: 15%

Special Benefits. This category considers government provisions that make moving to and living in each country easier and more affordable for foreign retirees. Taken into account are discounts on health care, public transport, airfares, entertainment, utilities, whether you can import goods duty free, property rights for foreign residents, and property tax rates. Weight in Index: 20%

Cost of Living. This score is based on statistics from the Indexes of Living Costs Abroad, Quarter Allowances, and Hardship Differentials, published by the U. S. Department of State. We also use our first-hand experiences living and traveling in these countries. The lower the score, the higher the cost of living. Weight: 20%

Culture. To calculate this score, we look at literacy rates, education as a percentage of GDP, the number of UNESCO sites per square kilometer, and a subjective rating of the variety of cultural and recreational offerings. Weight in Index: 10%

Health Care. Considered in this category are the cost of a typical visit to a general practitioner and the cost and coverage particulars of health insurance. Also considered are the number of people per doctor, the number of hospital beds per 1,000 people, the percentage of the population with access to safe water, the infant mortality rate, life expectancy, and public health expenditure as a percentage of a country’s GDP. Weight in Index: 20%

Infrastructure. We look at the length of railways, paved highways, and navigable waterways in each country, and compare them to each country’s population and size. We also consider the number of airports, motor vehicles, telephones, Internet service providers, and cell phones per capita. Weight in Index: 5%

Safety and Stability. This measure of unrest in each country is based primarily on Interpol data and U.S. State Department statistics. It also takes into account the civil liberties and political rights granted by each government. Our own experiences and reports from expatriates living in these countries also influence the safety scores. Weight in Index: 5%

Climate. Countries with temperate weather throughout the year, moderate rain fall, and little risk of natural disaster come out on top in this category. We use data representing each country as a whole instead of favoring one region over another. Weight in Index: 5%

This article was republished with permission from International Living.


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